Boom and Bust: Lessons From the Gas Patch

Jan Jarrett |

In 2011, the town of Towanda in Bradford County was at the epicenter of the shale drilling boom. A visitor would have been hard-pressed to find a vacant hotel room. There were waiting lines at the restaurants. The streets and roads were choked with big-rig diesels hauling the water, rigs, equipment, gravel, sand and chemicals needed to develop the gas wells. Rents doubled or tripled forcing some low-income families into homelessness.

Today, it’s a different story. Hotels sit nearly empty; business is off at the popular Weigh Station restaurant, and “For Rent” and “For Sale” signs are blooming in front of empty houses and apartments. The shale boom has busted.

The lull in the shale drilling frenzy caught towns like Towanda as much by surprise as the mass arrival of trucks, workers and money at the onset of the gas drilling boom. The lull also provides communities like Towanda with an opportunity to step back and assess what they learned, so they can be better prepared for the next, inevitable gas boom.

To help communities prepare for the shale gas boom and bust cycles, the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative has published a handbook for local governments, “Lessons from the Gas Patch: A Local Government Guide for Dealing with Drilling”. Drawing on research conducted by the MSSRC during the drilling boom, the handbook contains recommendations to help communities prepare for the next wave of intense drilling. The recommendations include:

  • Modernize the county recorder of deeds office;
  • Create a single point of contact in government;
  • Anticipate and address the need for more emergency personnel and police;
  • Anticipate and address rising rents, housing shortages and increased homelessness;
  • Anticipate and plan for increased heavy truck traffic; and,
  • Educate landowners about their rights if they lease to gas drillers and about the opportunities and risks of leasing.

Hydrofracking technology has opened up shale deposits that underlie many parts of the country that were previously unavailable for development. The new accessibility of these sources of natural gas and oil has brought drilling to many places without a history of extraction, most of them in rural areas where communities and local governments lack the capacity to deal with the intensely industrial character of unconventional drilling. Given the geographic extent of these deposits, especially the Marcellus and Utica shales, many communities will face the numerous changes drilling brings in the future. The recommendations in this handbook are based on the experiences of communities which have grappled with the disruptive changes that accompany the drillers and their rigs. As drilling technology changes and as drilling moves into new areas, there will be new challenges and lessons to be learned.